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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How the Obama Campaign Can Win The Battle for the Undecided

Via Daily Kos, at Working America’s ‘Main Street’ blog, Doug Foote’s post “There are undecided voters in Virginia. Lots of Them” calls attention to a problem the Obama campaign must address over the next few days, and he offers a credible solution.
Foote acknowledges the data evidence that there are very few undecided voters left, as well as all of the ads directed at them to influence their votes. But after accompanying a door to door canvasser in an effort to identify undecided voters in Leesburg, Virginia, he concludes that (a.) there are in fact plenty of undecided voters left, (b.) Many of them will not be swayed by ads, and (c.) the best way to reach them is to engage them in respectful conversation, sharing real experiences.
Foote’s post is mostly anecdotal. But the conversations he relates ring true. These are real people talking, not strereotypes culled from data-driven analysis. As Foote explains:

I went out canvassing with Giordano “Gio” Hardy-Gerena, a Field Manager with Working America. Our task was to identify Obama and Kaine supporters on the winding roads of the Leesburg suburbs. A tribute to Working America’s data operation, we still talked to undecided and leaners on both sides, even on streets where Obama and Romney signs covered their neighbors’ lawns.
“Whenever one of those political ads comes on, I just change the channel,” one man told us on his front porch. Still, when we talked to him, he was interested in talking about the issues, and in comparing the candidates.
Between work, children, and other commitments, many folks in Leesburg just hadn’t had time to consider the election. It’s a fact that Beltway media and politicos scoff at — but ignoring it, or mocking it, or even worse, minimizing the numbers, doesn’t win elections. Not everyone has the time or firehose-exposure to media and politics. One woman with four kids running around her front hall apologized as Gio began his rap: “I’m sorry, it’s homework time.”
Even among voters who had been following the race, support for either candidate was far from solidified. “I’m just tired of the partisanship,” a fifty-something life-long Republican sighed. His job is tied to defense contracting, and like many in the area he’s not too pleased with talk of sequestration. We pointed out George Allen’s record in the Senate, where he racked up the debt that put us in our current fiscal position.
“My wife is probably voting for Kaine,” he said. “Reaching across the aisle right here at home!” I joked, “showing those politicians a good example.” We then were able to talk about Kaine’s bipartisan work as governor, versus Allen’s “my way or the highway” approach in the Bush years.
He was far from the only split-ticket home, which broke all stereotypes: women for Allen and Romney, men for Obama and Kaine, people of color voting straight ticket for the GOP, and pro-lifers strongly considering third-party candidates. This state – and let’s face it this country – doesn’t abide simple political stereotypes.

Foote then relates a story of one voter, they call Jonathan, who they just couldn’t convince, and who said he will probably flip a coin. The point being that there are some voters truly don’t know who they will vote for until they cast their ballot. But there are many others who are persuadable, if it’s done the right way, as Foote describes:

So what’s the takeaway? TV ads and mailers aren’t going to win the commonwealth of Virginia for Obama and Kaine – nor their opponents for that matter. And while our one-on-one conversations turned many undecided voters into leaners, we need a special ingredient for folks like Jonathan: personal stories.
Involving personal stories into the rap at the door is something Virginia Field Director Dan O’Malley stressed to our organizers in the afternoon briefing. “Instead of just saying that George Allen will end Medicare as we know it, talk about a parent, relative, or someone in your life who relies on those benefits,” he said. And many of them do have those experiences to share–it propels the work they do. “I started talking about how hard it was for me to get healthcare and it really changed the conversation,” said Sarah, a canvasser fresh out of college.
Maybe that tactic didn’t get Jonathan to budge away from his “coin-flip” stance. But in those areas where ads, debates, and 24-hour coverage haven’t made a difference, making the election personal in old school, one-on-one interactions is the only tool in our toolbox that can succeed where Karl Rove’s millions have failed.

At TDS we like data-driven analysis to help formulate political strategy, and we applaud the deployment of modern scientific techniques that are being used to help win elections. But after all of the political scientists and wonks have had their say, persuasion of individual voters at the case by case level is more of an art than a science. It’s important to have good candidates, who project real humanity to connect with persuadable voters. But it’s not always enough. We have to both listen to voters and share our experiences in marshalling our case if we want to win new hearts and minds to support the Democratic cause.

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